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Things You Should Know But Don’t: Responsible Behavior in Space

Posted April 25, 2022

Time and time again, the advancements made in technology have been applied in warfare to increase efficiency and get an edge over your opponent.  Just last month I wrote about the concerns over Russia using autonomous weapons in the conflict with Ukraine. Experts in the field of AI condemn the use of such weapons for good reason. With the advancement of technology comes the risk of misusing it and abusing the power it wields. It is not enough for only experts within a field to voice their concerns; it is often necessary for political leaders to actively condemn the misuse of such technology and lead by example.

On the eve of April 18th, 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the US will no longer be conducting anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests. ASATs are missiles fired from the ground to take down satellites that orbit Earth.  As it stands, no country that has made ASAT testing efforts has destroyed another country’s spacecraft. According to journalist Loren Grush, “Since the same missile technology used to destroy a fast-moving satellite can also be used to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles, ASAT tests can act as technology demonstrations. But these tests are predominately very loud shows of strength.” In the most recent Russian ASAT missile test, the explosion was close enough to the International Space Station to call for the astronauts on board to shelter inside. While this test was swiftly denounced by the US, NATO and the EU, April 18th marks the first time any nation has declared a commitment to cease ASAT efforts— and has urged other countries to follow. Harris has been quoted as believing this policy will be established as a “norm of responsible behavior in space.”

The sentiment is certainly a respectable one.  But it is also naïve. Harris is not the first to express concern or a desire for the international community to come together and discontinue ASAT tests. There are even other counties that seem interested in pursuing such policies on an international level. In May 2022, the United Nations will begin developing an “open-ended working group on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours.” It is still unclear, however, whether some of the main political powers using ASAT missile tests will agree to this or any other space-related policies. China and Russia are the two other main powers that have successfully conducted destructive ASATs. Notably, China was not among the many countries to speak out against the most recent Russian ASAT missile test. Between the diplomatic collaboration of their space programs and the plans to develop a joint base on the Moon, China and Russia have been increasingly more cooperative in space.

Without full agreement around the rules and regulations that extend to outer space, it is possible that it will quickly become the next battleground. It is not safe to assume that other countries will voluntarily agree to or follow a set of “best practices” laid out by the US or any other entity. We have seen that Russia, certainly, is willing to disregard the disapproval of fellow nations. Vice President Harris’s declaration may be nothing more than wishful thinking and perhaps even a critical step towards addressing the danger of the galactic playing field. But ending our testing while key political adversaries continue theirs may be a strategic blunder in the long term. Time will tell.

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